The Seventh Day of Griefmas: Keeping the Christmas Train on the Rails

If you know me, you know that Christmas at my house is a bloody mess: the floor has usually not been washed since Thanksgiving, the tree is barricaded behind the coffee table to discourage the adventurous two-year-old from  climbing it like a cat; the decorations are few, and are perched precariously on top of the junk piles that anchor my “hoarder-chic” theme, and bits of my hair have fallen like a salt-and-pepper snow of anxiety over everything.

Although I can generally keep my housekeeping shame to myself (except when I’m blurting about it), the part of my Christmas shame that becomes obvious is my failure to gather and give presents.

Part of the problem is financial, but most of it is attentional. I start my lists nice and early in November, with huge amounts of anxiety over my budget and doubt in my ability to choose attractive gifts… and then forget to plan time for shopping. With the presents that I manage to buy, I often forget to bring them along when I visit the giftee. I get so overwhelmed attempting to wrangle all the factors that I waste money, forget people, and generally come off like I don’t care.

I know that the year I finally make peace with Christmas, everything will fall into place. In the meantime, I’m sad, ridiculous and struggling.

If you are in this boat, here’s a commiserating hug. Let’s promise ourselves that no matter how far we stray from the perfect-looking Christmas, we will drill down to the core of what matters to us most, and make sure that we do what really needs to be done.

For me, that’s making sure my kids have something to open on Christmas morning, and that we spend time with all of their grandparents.

This year, as my writing business picks up steam and demands more of my limited energy, I also need to discipline myself to put my laptop away and spend time with my husband and our girls. In past years, this has meant skating at our community park, and after-dinner walks to look at all the lights in our neighbourhood. This year, it might just mean curling up together in the living room to watch the Grinch as many times as possible before Boxing Day. The important part is just being together.

Tonight, as you think about what your bottom line priorities are, I will leave you with some pieces from other wonderful writers about their attempts to celebrate.

The Bloggess – I’m Not Ready

The Wing of Madness – Depression and the Holidays

I hope you give yourself tons of credit for the important things you achieve, lots of support for the things that kick your ass, and lots of grace for the things you need to let go.

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The Sixth Day of Griefmas: The Art of Reaching Out for Help

Today’s post about how to reach out for help is going to be a short one. It’s been a rough day; my brain could not get a grip on my time or emotions. It feels like I’ve been trying to run on ice, and I’ve pulled all my mental muscles.

“Why don’t you let me handle the post today?” says a voice at my side.

I look over, and there is Critter. My imaginary raccoon has crawled up onto the bed beside me. She looks at the computer on my lap, puts a paw on my arm to stop me typing, and looks at me with concern.

“I’m fine, Critter,” I say. “I just need to bang this out.” But as I say it, a voice inside me groans.

Critter can hear it. Her eyebrows roll from a look of supplication to suspicion.

“Sure you are,” she mocks. “that’s why you lost it this morning on the girls, failed to get them out the door to daycare, and wasted half your day weeping through fifteen minutes-worth of paperwork.”

I don’t even have the energy to argue. Although she is being kind of a bitch.

I just rub my eyes.

I put my hands back on my keyboard and stare at the screen, thinking hard. What was I trying to say?

Critter waves a paw in front of my face.

“You’re doing it again,” she says.

“Buzz off, Rodent.” I mutter, and keep staring at the screen.

Critter crawls right up onto my keyboard.

“Hey!” I shout, as her butt types a long string of q’s.

Critter straightens up and puts both hands on my face.

“Go to bed!” she commands.

My heart starts pounding.

“I can’t,” is all I can say. My mind races, words tumbling over each other with the dizzy speed and heat of those gigantic gas dryers at the laundromat. My thoughts come out shrunken, with just a faint whiff of burnt.

Critter squishes my face until my mouth puckers between her paws.

“You’re glazing over,” she says. “Don’t do that. Come back.”

I heave my eyes back into focus, and plead with her.

“I can’t, Critter! Don’t make me think. I just can’t. Let me finish this…” I trail off.

Critter sighs loudly and drops her hands to her sides. She sits there on my keyboard and looks at me with her head tilted for a moment or two. I just stare back.

Then, she straightens up.

“Listen,” she says. “You are not accomplishing anything here. You have reached the point of diminishing returns. Actually, I think you hit it last night, but you just kept on going. Like a drunk driving home with a stop sign dragging underneath the car. You didn’t even notice.”

I chuckle. Critter smiles.

“You need to pull over, now,” she says. Then, she strokes my forehead. “It doesn’t have to be the all-Laurie show, you know.”

“But, it’s my blog…” I say. “And my freelance business. And my kids. And my laundry. And my meals…”

“And your brain,” Critter interrupts. “Which is currently making loud noises and belching smoke. Can’t you see it?”

I take a slow, deep breath. Well, I can’t see the smoke… but I can feel it, the chafe of unlubricated synapses grinding against each other and chewing one another into dust.

“That’s not how it works,” Critter blurts.

“I don’t care,” I groan.

“Hey,” she says, “before you start calling me nasty names, can’t you please just admit that you need help?”

My thoughts get high-centered on this concept.

Critter is not the first one to suggest this in the last couple of days. I hear echoes of myself saying the same damn thing to my friends who are struggling. But I can’t wrap my brain around what that would look like for me.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” I say to Critter, frowning. “How am I supposed to ask for help? I already have a counsellor. I lean hard on my husband, spend precious money on daycare, have hired coaches for business and writing… I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. It’s not like someone can come and do my work for me.”

Critter furrows her face and considers.

“How are you supposed to ask for help?” she says. “I don’t know. This isn’t a thing for raccoons. When we’re tired, we just stay curled up in the den. When we’re ready, we come out. It’s not an epic drama.”

I think about this for a moment.

“You bring up a good point,” I say. “Part of the reason it is so hard to ask for help is that people have a ton of expectations of each other.”

“Yeah, you do.” Critter agrees. “You people always make things over-complicated. We think it’s hilarious that you consider yourselves such an intelligent species.”

“Well, we can’t all live on garbage,” I say, frowning.

“Too bad,” Critter answers.

“Anyhow,” I continue, “the hardest part of asking for help is negotiating those expectations. It’s humiliating to have to say to someone, ‘I’m weak, please have mercy on me.’ And it kind of screws up your relationship. The other person either decides that they have no time for you and your fat handfuls of disappointment, or they feel sorry for you, and put themselves in this awkward position where they are afraid to expect anything of you.”

I express a heavy sigh. This conundrum has always made me ache.

Critter looks at me kindly.

“And the worst part for you, is deciding that you can’t expect anything from yourself,” she says.

This makes my eyes well up. They are so puffy from sleep deprivation that the tears won’t spill. Those swollen grey pouches can hold a lot of water.

I blink hard to empty them, and wipe at the raw corners of my eyes with my sleeve.

“I just hate being a let-down,” I whisper.

Critter stands up against my chest and nestles her head into the crook of my neck. I reach up and stroke her back, pausing on the barely perceptible sounds of my hand swishing across her coarse fur, and her heartbeat fluttering against my collarbone.

“Are you going to forgive yourself?” Critter whispers into my ear.

Holy crap, I think. I don’t know.

Although I still haven’t figured out how I’m going to ask for help, I recognise that I need to do so. And more importantly, I realise that what’s holding me back is not so much a lack of creativity, but a refusal to give myself permission.

I don’t know the secret to asking for help gracefully. It’s definitely an art. It requires a fine balance between advocating for your own needs, and acknowledging the other party’s.

In the end, asking for help comes down to a critical choice in your relationship; do you address your struggle and make room for your partner to do the same? Or do you hold back and watch in silent horror as you let them down?

Tonight, if you feel like you’re losing control, but don’t know what to do, I hope you will open your mind to the possibility that speaking up about your struggle might give your strained relationships a chance to heal. And I hope it makes room for new ideas to come that help you manage your needs and obligations.

May we all have the courage to face our weakness, do what needs doing, and accept ourselves as we are.

Like raccoons do.

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The Fifth Day of Griefmas: Looking Outward Through the Veil of Grief

“Watcha watching?” asks my imaginary raccoon, and she hops up on to the armrest of my chair.

“Hey, Critter,” I say. I reach up to scratch behind her ear, lean over and sniff her dry, dusty head, and then lay my hands back on my keyboard.

“I’m watching a clip on YouTube,” I explain. I breathe deep. The air aches in my chest. I’m watching something painful and beautiful.

Patton Oswalt is one of my favourite comedians. In this clip, he is talking to Stephen Colbert, another performer I adore. Patton is talking about his return to performing after a six-month hiatus following the sudden death of his wife.

He is talking about grief, and the process of sharing it publicly.

He is making my throat tight.

Critter watches the screen with me for a few moments, then turns to me. She tilts her head and says, “You’re trembling.”

I hadn’t noticed. But sure enough, I lifted my right hand, and it wavered. Just barely.

“Holy crap, you are fine-tuned,” I say.

“Don’t change the subject,” Critter scolded. “What’s up?”

I felt a wave of heat travel from my belly up into my tongue. My mouth felt too small, all of a sudden. Packed tight.

“Patton Oswalt,” I said. “He’s amazing.” That’s all I could get out.

Critter looked at me. Then she looked back at the video.

Patton was saying that the hardest part of coping was getting out of bed, getting out the door, and getting into the car. But once he was at a gig, and as soon as he started speaking to his audience, his pain eased.

My heart pounded, like it was trying to speak on behalf of my tied-up tongue.

He said more, like how sometimes he felt people were thinking, “How dare this guy talk about this pain?” How sometimes people responded by sharing their own stories, and their experiences flooded out of them with a depth of grief that he felt unqualified to comprehend.

“Yes,” I whispered. Critter shoved her nose under my palm until it rested on her warm cranium.

He said that in the end, the only thing that weakens the monster of grief is facing it. Naming it. Getting right down the absurd truth about it and daring to say it out loud.

I picked Critter up and hugged her to my chest. She tucked her head beneath my chin. I just held her, and swayed a little, and thought about Patton’s face. His voice. His graying hair. The light that seemed to be coming out of his skin as he spoke, utterly grounded in the truth.

Patton said that the weirdest thing about his new, warped reality, was that the conversation about grief that he had with his audience made things somehow okay for everyone.

I hugged Critter harder and cried onto her back as I whispered, “I know.”

Whether you are naturally expressive, or not so much a sharer, I think you can touch this invisible ray of warmth, too.

If you want to see beyond the veil of your grief, do something for other people. Make their world better. It won’t matter whether or not you tell anyone what you are doing or why; what matters is proving to yourself that you have power. Your pain has purpose. Your broken world has hope and beauty and light.

Do something for your kids; your grandmother; your neighbour.

Do something wider to help:

Take action. Any action. There is no act too small, as long as it is meaningful to you, and helps your crooked world sit a little more upright.

Whatever you do, know that you are not alone. Critter and I are right here with you, loving you through the dark spaces that we share, and willing the space around you to feel warm and secure tonight.

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The Fourth Day of Griefmas – 5 Ways to Find the Light

In the spirit of what we talked about yesterday (that is, holding onto what’s important, and giving ourselves permission to let go of the rest), I am keeping it simple today.

This list about finding light is here to support you gently in your Christmas Grief. Have a look, notice what appetite it stirs in you, and then find a way to fulfil your hunger for light – either literal or metaphorical.

5 Ways to Find the Light When You’re Aching, Grieving, or Lost

1. Movement

Yoga with Adriene: Yoga for the Winter Blues

This is a free 30 minute video class with my favourite YouTube personality on the planet. If you don’t have a full 30 minutes in you, check out her channel for a shorter video, like this one:

Legs Up the Wall (11 minutes)

2. Music

Flight of the Conchords:

Hurt Feelings

Business Time

3. Humour

Funny or Die: Goodest Tweets This Week

Arrested Development: The Best of Tobias Funke

Robot Chicken: Best of Harry Potter

My post about a Hot Dog machine

4. Light Therapy

Portable Light for Seasonal Depression (this is an affiliate link; if you make a purchase Amazon will send a little thank you to the Critter and I)

It’s a good idea to get monitored by a doctor or mental health professional while using light therapy, because it alters your brain chemistry (serotonin levels); this can sometimes make mood problems worse, or cause difficult side-effects like insomnia. Checking in regularly with a trained expert will help ensure you don’t overlook problem reactions.

Sunlight and Tanning Beds

Experts warn that tanning (either indoor, or outdoor) increases your risk of cancer. However, there is also some evidence that ultraviolet light (i.e. sunlight or tanning bulbs) may increase endorphins. 

In spite of the risk, I feel like I have to mention the tanning approach.

On one hand, I am a gigantic weiner who detests sunburn. But on the other, I get a huge amount of relief from small doses of UV. A warm-weather holiday, or a couple of weekly 5-15 minute tanning sessions (I call it, “my warm nap time”) provide a huge boost to my mood.

If this strategy appeals to you, get educated and minimize your risk of catastrophic skin damage.

5. Christmas Lights

Although lights aren’t doing it for me this year, in seasons past I found it very comforting to spend time with candles and coloured strands in the dark. If you feel tugged toward toward these hopeful displays, make sure to give yourself some quiet time to take them in.

That’s all I’ve got for you tonight.

Whether your inner animal is a lizard who needs to soak in sweet solar rays, or a night critter who needs the moon’s cool glow to find her way, remember that light is the fifth food group. Feed your creature.

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The Third Day of Griefmas: Aw, Crap. I Screwed Up

I apologize for not posting yesterday. By the end of the day, my brain was full of cement, and I couldn’t finish my jobs.

It happens sometimes in depression and grief. And it happens in “regular” life, too.

When you’ve screwed the pooch, it can be hard to decide whether to let yourself off the hook, or grab your cat ‘o nine tails and bloody your back.

Let’s… Um… just a sec.

Critter is tapping my shoulder.

“Hey Critter. Can you hang on a second? I want to apologize to everyone and make a point about shitting the bed when you’re low.” I say to my imaginary raccoon/garbage-munching mental health therapist.

She twists her head down toward my lower back, puts her nose into my waistband, and snuffles.

“HA! Quit it. That tickles.” I say.

“I don’t smell anything,” she says as she emerges. “No shit here.”

I roll my eyes.

“I didn’t literally shit. It’s an expression. To ‘shit the bed’ means you screwed up; dropped the ball; failed to perform.” I explain.

Critter tilts her head as she absorbs this.

“People are strange.” she concludes.

“No doubt,” I answer.

“Anyway,” she sighs, I heard something about whipping, and I hoped we were talking about sex again.”

I chuckle.

“Not this time, Critter.” I say.

Critter droops. I scratch behind her ears, and her frown flattens into a lazy smile. She crawls up onto my lap.

“I was referring to emotional self-flagellation, beating yourself up when your brain crashes and you miss your mark.” I explain. “I think there’s another way.”

“Well, sure there is,” Critter says. “Whipping can be fun.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Hush, you. Take a nap” I say, and give her heavy strokes from scalp to tail until she melts into a fuzzy grey puddle on my thighs.

Okay… where were we…

Oh, right. I missed yesterday’s post.

I was afraid this would happen. When I hit publish to announce this daily series, stomach acid splashed up into my mouth. I normally post once a month or less. I knew daily output would be hard for me, and I dreaded this moment when I fell behind.

I am sitting here with itchy armpits, feeling a combination of shame and desperation to get back on track. The good thing is, this gives us a chance to talk about the Catch-22 of Emotional Overwhelm:

When you’re low, your brain runs poorly. The hallmark symptoms of depression and grieving (like fatigue, indecision, and difficulty concentrating) mean that you can’t do everything right now. Stuff is going to fall through the cracks.

That’s a problem, because life hasn’t slowed down just because you have. People need you, and you can’t deliver what they are expecting.

It hurts to see their disappointment. If you’re not careful, depression will attack you right then. Like a serpent’s shadow, it will slither into your ear.

“You’re disgusting. You need to pay,” it whispers.

So you punish yourself. You turn up the soundtrack that says, “I’m useless, I’m damaged, I’m a waste of flesh and bone,” and you mentally just lay down on the floor and listen to it, like Daryl Dixon at the Saviors’ Hotel.

Every time you repeat that garbage, the lights inside your skull dim a little more.

My counsel to you tonight, and to myself, is this: FIGHT THE LIE. It is crippling you more than your sadness ever could.

The only way to fight lies is with truth.

Today, I’m starting here:

Truth #1: I feel awful because I didn’t follow through on my promise. My word means a lot to me, and I hate to show people that I can’t deliver what they need from me.

Truth #2: What matters to me, even more than being impeccable with my word, is getting this job done.

I WANT to finish this series. I want to put these posts out there and spread whatever comfort, chuckles, and strength that I can.

So, even though I’m shaking because I fell on my face in front of all of you (these posts have reached almost 700 people so far!), I’m going to get up and keep going.

And I hope that you get back up, too.

If there are things you have let fall while you struggled through this season – lost your temper with your spouse, ignored your kids, bailed on social plans, or left your boss and clients hanging… I want you to take a moment right now to regroup.

  1. Listen to your inner voice; can you spot the lies among the whispers?
  2. Sort out your rat’s nest of feelings: What is the truth in there? What is the MOST important thing to you?
  3. Decide: if you can’t conquer everything right now, which tasks will you focus on?
  4. Get back on that horse; do your most important thing.
  5. Apologize. This can be the hardest part. We worry how people will react – will they be angry? Will they berate me? Will they bite off my head and spit it on the floor and paint the walls with my arterial spray?

In my experience, a genuine apology almost always brings peaceful relief. Usually, people appreciate it when you acknowledge your mistake; they are relieved to hear that you haven’t forgotten or dismissed their need.

When I apologize (and I’m not gonna lie, sometimes it’s HARD, and sometimes I do it in a, “Yeah, I’m sorry that I got out of line, but as long as we agree it was really your fault, I won’t feel too bad about it,” kind of way) but when I do manage a real, honest apology, I think of it as an opportunity to tell someone they matter to me. That’s a lot more motivating than fishing for forgiveness, knowing that they may not feel like granting it.

As I finish typing this, Critter stirs on my lap. She lifts her head, eyes closed, and then stretches out her arms and legs in an enormous yawn. She smacks her lips a few times, then cranes her neck to look up at me.

“You done?” she asks.

“I think so,” I say. “It’s not my most exciting post, but I think it needed saying.”

She raises herself up to peek at my laptop, and I scroll for her while she reads it through. Then she turns back to me and puts her paws on my chest.

“It’s not your best, but it will do,” she says. Then, she adds, “It’s better when I get to talk more.”

I laugh.

“I know, Critter. Next time, okay?” I answer.

“Alright,” she sighs. “Can we talk about sex next time?”

With a firm maybe, we’re going to leave that right here.

So, go ahead and face your “aw, crap” moments this Griefmas. And remember, somewhere out here, Critter and I are rooting for you.

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The Second Day of Griefmas: Going Deeper

“Hey,” says Dark Little Critter, my imaginary raccoon. “Where’s your pin today?”

She’s talking about my “You Are Here” pin, the thing that marks where I’m at on my Christmas grief map.

We talked about that yesterday, when I was awake and lost in the dark morning hours.

Taking that time to put my status into words was grounding. It took a while (and a lot of words) to figure out what I was trying to say, but once I got it out in front of me, I felt better. I cried out the stuff that had gotten stuck; it was like coughing up a phlegm wad after holding it in through Sunday mass. A relief.

Here’s where I’m at today:

Exhausted.

I need a full night – make that a week – with no shrieking summons from the baby to shovel her feces, reapply her discarded jammies, or keep her company because she’s awake and lonely.

It has been a long two and a half years, with that one.

For the love of god, why would they give a wakeful baby to an insomniac? Somebody was probably, thinking, “Oh, it’s a perfect fit. This mom will be up anyway. She won’t mind.”

But that shortsighted, ass-faced, uncommonly stupid brain humper did not realize that insomniacs DO sleep. It’s just that we only sleep a tiny little bit. And that sleep is so rare, and so precious, that to have it disturbed is like watching someone pee in your canteen in the middle of the desert.

It brings on the rage.

It also screws with your focus.

“Where the hell was I?” I mutter out loud.

“That’s what I asked,” Critter says, her eyes narrowed. “Earth to Laurie? You’re being annoying.”

I take off my glasses and rub my eyes.

“Back off, Trash Muncher,” I reply. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Ha! Trash Muncher!” Critter says, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Jesus Christ, Critter! I don’t have patience for your smart ass arguments today. Please, just fuck off.” I shout.

Critter levels her eyes at me. Then, she disappears into the living room. She comes back with a notebook and pen in her paws.

She climbs up onto the chair beside me, opens the book, and makes a dramatic gesture of licking the pen. Then, she starts scribbling.

“Eeeeeee-rrrrri-taaaaaaaaaa-buuullllllllll…” she pronounces carefully as she prints.

I roll my eyes.

“Yes, you smug-faced, flea-bitten, rotten-smelling pest,” I growl. “I am irritable.”

Critter lays down her pen slowly and rolls her head toward me, her mouth pressed in a hard line.

I glare back.

Without breaking eye contact, she slides off the chair, then drops down on all fours and walks quietly away.

I wait a beat.

She doesn’t come back.

Damnit.

“Critter?” I call, “Come on. Don’t…”

Nothing.

Goddamn it.

I put my forehead on the table and groan. My eyes cross and the woodgrain swims in and out of focus. I am too tired to hold my lenses steady. Too tired to fight with my imaginary friend.

What the fuck am I doing?

I lift my head.

“Critter?” I call. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m acting like a total dick, and you don’t deserve that.”

I tilt my ear toward the living room, but there’s no scritch-scratch of jogging claws.

Fuck.

“I’m really sorry,” I whisper, and press the heels of my hands into my eyes. I massage back and forth over the swollen grey pouches beneath them. God almighty, I am so tired.

How am I supposed to finish this post without her?

I’m almost mad, but the part of me that knows better is shaking its head. This isn’t an injustice. This is consequences.

I take a big breath, feel my chest balloon with resolve, and let it out.

“You know what, Critter?” I say out loud to her absence. “I’m glad you walked out. I would rather you leave when I cross the line, than hide your hurt and cut me later.”

I lay my face back down on the table, cheek-down this time, and stare at nothing. It looks grey.

I don’t know how much time passes, but next thing a voice drifts into the mist.

“Earth to Laurie,” it whispers; “where’s your pin?”

I sit up and rub my eyes. They are so dry; once they close, they don’t want to reopen. I turn my head toward the sound, seeking it blindly.

“There you are,” says the voice, and my lids finally drag across my corneas to reveal my furry, honest friend on the floor beside my chair.

“Hey,” I croak. I look in her eyes a minute to gather my thoughts. “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” Critter says, and lays her hand on my leg. “You went to a lot of trouble to avoid the question. Where’s your pin today?”

I frown and think about it.

“You know what?” I say; “I’m kind of okay.”

Critter lifts an eyebrow.

“Alright, I’m not great. I’m a dick and I’ve lost all feeling except anger. But I’m not a blubbering mess.” I say.

“Hmm,” says Critter. She lifts her nose and sniffs towards me a few times. “You smell okayish. There’s something to be said for daily hygiene.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment?” I ask.

Critter shrugs.

“What do you want from me?” I ask.

Critter smiles.

“Nothing,” she says. “Except for you to be here.”

“Aren’t I?” I ask.

“You’re in and out,” she says. “You’re nicer when you’re all here.”

I think about this.

“How am I supposed to be MORE here?” I ask.

Critter rubs her chin.

“I think you need to roll in the scent of it,” she finally says.

“What?” I ask.

“You know,” she says, shrugging. “Roll around in it. The thing that is eating your brain. Get that special stink all over you, and when your nostrils are right full of it, get on with what needs doing.”

I raise a brow at her.

“You mean, like when dogs roll in cowshit, or deer pee, or fucking compost?” I ask.

I’m remembering a little white bichon that my dad brought home out of nowhere one day. This was less than a year before he died… maybe just a couple of months. That dog had a prissy-poodle haircut and a disgusting habit of rolling in whatever putrid semi-liquid she could find. The behaviour baffled me. Somebody told me it was a hunting instinct – she was trying to mask her own scent so she could get close to her prey.

Yeah. Wouldn’t want that reeking lump of canned cow barf in her bowl to get suspicious.

Critter sees the memory roll across my face and laughs.

“Same idea, but you’ve got it backwards.” she says. “Dogs aren’t trying to fool their prey; they’re trying to quell their obsession. Every cell in their body wants to stalk and chase and kill, but they’re domesticated, so they can’t. Those urges rise every time a dog feels tense, and the pressure becomes excruciating. At some point, on the verge of totally snapping, the dog dashes for any nearby smell that approximates blood and guts, and rolls in that stuff until they are covered. With gore caked into their fur, they can finally breathe. A cloud of filth can be a great comfort. It satisfies the beast within.”

“No shit!” I laugh.

I rub my forehead while this idea sinks in. Something about it feels weirdly right.

“The question is,” Critter says; “What is Your Filth?”

So, let’s you and I go deeper into our filth today.

Before you go dump out your trash bin, let me clarify.

I think Critter is suggesting that when we’re in the angry place, which happens a lot in depression and grieving, we dig into our dirty urges and find a reasonable way to satisfy them.

For me, that sounds like storytelling.

When my rage is stalking back and forth behind me, sometimes it feels really good to feed it with stories that are bleak, awful, or downright horrifying. Here are a bunch that scratch that particular itch; they help me process the shitty truths and figure out how to live with them.

(Disclaimer: There are affiliate links below, which means, if you purchase through them, the Critter and I will receive a little thank you from the vendor.)

TV

Rescue Me
Denis Leary as a New York firefighter. Also a drunk and often horrible human being, who tries his damnedest to do the right thing, but usually fails.

American Horror Story
Supernatural terror that is horrifyingly believable, because each storyline is powered by the worst in human nature.

Shameless
William H. Macy as another drunk, this time an unemployed slimeball who screws-over his young family at every opportunity. He will blow your mind with his ability to limbo below your worst expectations.

Music

Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Like Bad News
Every genre of music mashed together into a hypnotic rock fruit salad, with lyrics that make you want to drive around with your hand on the horn at 3am. Because, goddamn everything, and yet, never give up.

Books

Suicide Stitch by Sarah Johnson
This collection of shivery dark stories made me cry in a dozen different ways. Every tale pits the best in us against the worst, and somehow gives me comfort. It in shows how the awful things we do make perfect sense; reading Suicide Stitch is like sticking your head inside the steaming carcass of human tragedy and seeing how all the parts pulse and quiver to the same rhythm.

Nix by J J Reichenbach
This story centers around a sarcastic supernatural asshole that you will kind of hate yourself for loving.

And… that’s my filth.

What’s yours?

Whether your tastes run darker than mine, or lighter, I hope you make room for them this season. I suspect that a proper coating of slime on your clothes might prove strangely soothing, especially when the “clean” world looks black.

 

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The First Day of Griefmas: Placing the “You Are Here” Pin

“So?” Critter asks, her voice shaking me out of an open-eyed doze. “You still standing?”

I can’t answer. For one thing, I’m laying down; so, that’s confusing. It’s 3am, and I just changed my toddler’s night-poop diaper. This is one of her “new things” that is decidedly uncute. I’m thinking of having a cork installed that I can just remove during the day, so we will stop getting woken in the middle of the night for “scrape the horror off my hiney” duty.

I know what my imaginary raccoon means, though. She wants to hear me say that my fears about starting this “Coping with Christmastime Grief” campaign were unfounded; Look! I put it out there, and the world kept turning. All is well, right?

Except, it’s not. I have been laying here for an hour, wishing I was back asleep, and re-reading yesterday’s announcement in my head. All I see is a mess; screwed up verb tenses, muddled-up metaphors, and a confused rant about my self-conscious anxiety that basically said nothing useful.

My mouth is dry and my throat is locked. I am choking on shame.

I swallow nothing and force my jaw to move.

“Yup,” I say. “Still standing.” I look away from her as I say it.

Critter’s brow furrows.

“Come on,” she says, shaking my shoulder with two paws. “You did fine.”

I do NOT want to get into an argument about whether the post was or wasn’t awful. There is nothing more defeating than fighting with someone to convince them that you are disgusting.

I don’t say anything, but Critter sees the thought ripple across my face.

“Hey,” she says, taking my cheeks between her paws. “Do not go there. Why do you humans work so hard to justify your shame? Can’t you see that is the problem?”

I roll my head towards her and frown.

“I feel ashamed because I did a shitty job, Critter,” I say.

Critter looks me hard in the eyes.

“No,” she says. “You feel ashamed because you think that a messy job is worse than not trying at all.”

My mouth opens, but nothing comes out. She’s right. My eyes well up.

“Listen to me carefully,” she says. She strokes my forehead and her eyes get soft. “That post was not your best work. And that is okay. You didn’t knock it out of the park, but I am proud of you for trying.”

And now I am crying. I sit up quietly and scoop Critter onto my lap. I stroke her back, soothing myself with the feel of her coarse coat sliding against my palm. The tears run down my face in the dark.

After a while, she looks up at me and says, “Let’s go downstairs. We need to talk, and we don’t want to wake the whole household.”

Next to me on the bed, my husband snorts loudly in the back of his throat and rolls over.

Critter climbs up onto my shoulder. I grab my sweater and glasses, and slip out of bed.

Down in the living room, I turn on a light and sit on the floor. Critter settles herself back onto my lap, and I resume the hypnotic petting.

I think about what she said; You didn’t do great, but I’m proud of you for trying.

What would I give to have heard my dad say that, at least one time before he died?

Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. It has been twenty-three years. Although you might think that this heartache from my juniour-high days would have healed by now, the truth is, it hasn’t. Not completely, anyway.

My dad died two weeks before Christmas when I was thirteen. He had a heart attack while my family knelt around him, and he has been haunting our Christmases ever since.

I think that’s how it goes with traumatic stuff around the holidays. The memories of the shock and pain become permanently connected to the season. I’m sure the experience is slightly different for everyone, but at the heart of things, many of us sleepwalk through the holly jolly season with a similar damp weight in our chests.

Today, here’s what I want to say about grief at Christmastime: We don’t have to be fixed, but it will make it easier to get through it if we tune-in to where we are.

Let’s put one of those “I am Here” pins into our Crappy Christmas map.

I’ll go first.

I am here:

My head is full of cotton, and I am overwhelmed. Don’t want to look at the lights and glitter going up everywhere. I can’t make myself do any holiday decorating, and am ashamed that my husband and daughters have to do it without me. I know I should be involved, but I just can’t. The lights are glowing and garlands sparkle, but to me it all looks cold and grey. I can’t touch it because I don’t want to feel the gloom that registers in my skin and eyes chaffing against the warm delight that my brain was expecting. I just can’t.

Instead of trying to summon holiday magic, I am focusing on work. Obligations. To-dos.

I am deeply thankful for the work I have found, a handful of freelance jobs that force me to schedule every waking minute which does not already belong to childcare, into my business. I am writing, reading, organizing, editing, and dealing with a world of information and communication where I feel safe from misery. It doesn’t matter how hard I am sweating or how badly my tics are coming out when I interact with the world through my keyboard.

Except, sometimes it does.

Although I am pouring myself into work, there is less of me to pour. In the last week, I have fallen behind on all of my major projects. The solace of my low-pressure tasks is getting canceled out by the anxiety that I won’t make my deadlines and fulfill my promises.

And then there’s the mental fog. The awful writing that I don’t recognize until after it is sent; the snacks, meals, and bedtimes for my kids that keep creeping later, and are getting thrown together thoughtlessly; the sneaky increase of screen time for the kids, and accompanying irritability and fights that I know are my fault, but I just can’t under control…

That’s where I’m at.

And the part that bothers me most this year is that even though thoughts of my dad are sitting on top of every pile of the mess around me, I can’t actually feel him.

Most years, I can feel the loss, the sadness over missed opportunities and the absence of his warmth. But this year. I’m just numb. I think I numbed him out. Maybe my strategy of putting 110% of my attention on work, in hopes of keeping my head above water this Christmas, have backfired.

I want to see him in my kids’ faces again. I want to picture him with startling vividness in those out-of-the-blue moments when I see exactly what he would be doing or saying if he were here right now. I want to have those daydreams where I get to see him be a granddad, kneeling down and showing the girls how stuff works, and laughing with his eyes crinkled shut at their hilarious takes on the adult world.

I want to look around at older men and their adult daughters sitting at the table next to me when I’m working at the coffee shop, and experience what that would be like with my dad, in an imagined alternate reality.

Most of all, I want to feel the love for him again. That’s the real thing that went away this year. The love – the absolute certainty that he loved me and did his very best to take care of me and our family. The trust I had in him, that even though he could be cruel and we would fight, I knew he would always be there. He would crawl over broken glass to help me, if I needed. And I know that at many times in my childhood, he did.

So, that’s where I’m at with my Christmas grief.

Critter is looking at me now. She almost fell asleep on my lap while I worked this out and cried, but I woke her when I got up to grab some kleenex.

Critter’s face is so warm right now. She has this way of gazing at me that is so calm and still; she doesn’t need anything from me, she is just fully present. She seems glad to be with me, even though I’m broken. And I’m so glad to be with her.

It is everything to know where I am, and that I’m not alone. It changes the whole picture to know that someone can stand to be in this dark place with me. It helps me accept being here with myself.

Now, I want to share that acceptance with you. Whether you share your “I Am Here” with me, or not, please take the time to put that pin in your Christmas grief map, for your own comfort. I promise, it helps. And you can be sure that Critter and I are rooting for you, and we have faith that you are going to still be standing when the New Year comes.

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The 12 Days of Griefmas

Ah, Christmas and grief. They go together like raw eggs and rum.

Hello, my friends.

I’m typing to you with sweat-slicked palms. I have this idea about dark feelings during the holidays. This idea wants out. It’s chittering like a pissed-off chipmunk and giving me a headache.

Critter is here – my faithful friend, straight-talking muse, and imaginary raccoon. She just shook her head at me and yawned. Apparently, mouthy nut-hoarding tree-dwellers don’t impress her.

So this idea keeps buzzing in my skull. I can’t spit it out. It’s been there for two weeks.

My jaws are locked tight by an exaggerated nervousness about Things I Might Regret. It’s getting rather constipated in here.

This giant feeling of foreboding has been standing in front of my expressive outlet, looking like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It is crossing its tree-trunk arms and giving me a cocky grin that says, “Good luck with that.”

This smug censor is an agent of Doubt, and is the biggest pain in the ass on my internal executive committee. When I get threatening ideas, Doubt’s henchman cracks thick knuckles tattooed with his motto: Don’t Write Checks You Can’t Cash. Or Else.

Well, the chipmunk isn’t having any of that. He has started stomping his tiny feet and waving his paws, and just squeaked something like, “This nut needs to be cracked!” Or, it might have been, “You’re gonna get smacked.” I don’t know; I don’t speak chip-squeak.

Anyway, these two lunatics started a brawl in the backroom of my mind. The stale grey air filled with echoing screams and hunks of fur that fell like snow. Flying chairs and tables dinged the walls.

At the height of the melee, I left the building. I propped the back door open with a dustpan, and squatted against cold, gritty brick in the back alley. I laid my head in my hands. I breathed hard and listened to the wheezy in-out huffs, trying to get grounded and figure out what to do.

On one hand, I know I am in a messy place. I’m so far behind on my obligations and so run down on my reserves that making another promise right now seems like masochism.

But on the other hand, I think that maybe Mr. Chubbycheeks is right; maybe this nut DOES needs cracking.

I tossed this question back and forth for awhile, like an exhausting game of one-man badminton.

All of a sudden, an impatient, “Ahem,” broke my thoughts. I looked up, and there was Critter. Her arms were crossed like captain beefcake, but her message was totally different. Instead of sporting a menacing grin, she was rolling her eyes.

“Are you done?” she finally asked.

“Done what?” I asked back.

“This!” she said, waving her paws around the alley. “And that,” she added, cocking a thumb toward the door; “Your drama made one hell of a mess.”

“That wasn’t me!” I protested, “Those guys are nuts! I came out here to get away from it.”

Critter gave me the “bullshit alert” eyebrow. I closed my eyes and rubbed my palm on my forehead.

“God. Okay. Fine,” I grumbled. “The drama is me. The chipmunk is me, the meathead is me…”

“And the lily-livered whiner cowering behind the dumpster right now is DEFINITELY you,” Critter finished for me. Helpful, as always.

“Fuck off, Critter.” I said. But she didn’t flinch. Instead, she came closer, and laid a paw on my thigh.

She waited until I looked at to her and said gently, “Just do it.”

I looked at her. I didn’t know what to say. My heart pounded in my ears. My breath scraped in my chest.

I couldn’t even make words for my excuses.

Critter waited patiently, breathing with me. We stared at each other, and I started to get lost in the soothing neither-nor-ness of her brown-grey coat, and her yellow-green eyes.

For a moment, I forgot what we were talking about. My face relaxed. Critter saw the shift, and her ears perked up.

I picked up her wordless expectation, and sighed.

“Alright,” I said. “Fine. I’m doing it.”

Critter smiled and patted my leg.

“Atta girl,” she said.

“What if I can’t keep it up, though, Critter?” I asked, “What good will it do if I get started and can’t follow it through?”

“We might as well find out,” she answered. “It’s not like this holding back has helped anyone, or preserved your inner peace.”

I snorted. No kidding.

Alright. So… here we go.

I have this idea, and I’m just going to say it:

I’m going to run a campaign, starting today. It’s called 12 Days of Griefmas, and it’s for everyone whose heart breaks over and over again, every single Christmas.

I know there are a lot of us; the sad truth about the Christmas season is that it is kind of a magnet for grief.

The story is in the numbers; rates of illness, death, divorce, suicide, and self-harm spike in the dark of December. I think part of the problem is the crushing reality that the perfect Christmas dream we sell to each other isn’t real. It cannot exist in our brains, bodies, and families.

We push ourselves to the brink physically, emotionally, and financially, trying to produce the holidays we think our families need from us. And instead of drawing comfort from each others’ warm bodies at this time of year, we beat ourselves up and lament our loved ones’ failures. We drown our disappointment in food, drink, overwork, and meanness. We push ourselves further and further away from the connection we crave.

And all this is happening in a season when we’re low, anyway. The short, dark, shivery days and merry-go-round of snot-spewing contagion make winter a necessarily hard time. No wonder so many species migrate and hibernate to avoid it.

Since we can’t avoid it, and so many of us are sitting here feeling shitty anyway, I thought I’d light us a fire.

I’m going to pop on here every day between now and Boxing Day to keep the flames stoked with whatever tinder I can find: tips, songs, jokes, games, stories… who knows. I haven’t completely thought this through. I haven’t even counted the days… I think it might be more than twelve. Whatever. That’s not important.

What matters to me is reaching out to you, and clearing a place in the dark forest where we are wandering so we can come together.

I hope you can join me, and I hope it helps you get through this long night.

If you like this idea, go ahead and share this post. You all know I’m not shy about broadcasting my brokenness. Maybe it will find someone who needs it, and help them feel less alone.

Whatever it is you really need, I encourage you to find it. Sniff that shit out, gather it up, and line your nest with the things that express and soothe your ache.

And have yourself a grievy little Christmas. Let your heart be embraced by the dark critters all around you, and the love that comes from relating.

 

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Depression, Zen, and BDSM

“I’m dying, Critter,” I whisper to my imaginary raccoon. She has appeared, as always, to talk me through a flare of chronic depression.

“No, you’re not,” she retorts.

“God damn it. I don’t mean physically,” I grumble. I close my eyes and feel my cheeks burst into flame. Jesus Christ, Zottmann. Do not cry.

That thought just makes me want to cry more. Everything makes me feel worse. I push it away the only way I know how.

“Of course, I’m not literally dying, you condescending trash muncher. For fuck’s sakes! Listen!” Then, my voice echoes back into my ears. Aw, shit. I’m an asshole.

My posture flops and I add softly, “Please.”

Yep, here come the tears.

I slink to the bathroom to loudly saturate three-eighths of the kleenex box. Then I slump back onto my kitchen chair and lay my face on the table, looking away from my shat-upon friend. The cool surface of the oak soothes my cheek, but the grit of neglected crumbs and the tacky tang of a dried apple juice puddle scratch at my tenderness.

“Fuck. This is disgusting,” I think. “I am the shittiest housekeeper who ever lived.”

I bet there is some hideous bacteria festering in the table’s center crack right now, just inches from my face. All spills run into there. It’s like an ocean of failure.

Has the the table been warped, or was it designed with an imperceptible slope just to ensure that stupid crack would catch every drop of spill? It’s so wrong! It makes my head ache, along with that ghastly-smelling organism mouldering in the dank crevice.

We don’t even own the fucking leaf that’s supposed to slide into there, for the love of God. What a piece of crap. I mean, it’s actually a nice table, all solid oak and everything, but it’s a hand-me-down, like everything else in our shithole house, and the surface is wrecked. We promised ourselves we’d fix it up, but have failed at that. Like everything.

Critter’s impatient sigh disrupts my mental rant. I open my eyes and lift my head. For a moment, I forget why she is mad. I creak my neck around to look at her. Then I remember.

She is staring at me with her short arms crossed. Waiting. She doesn’t waste time chastising me. She just looks at me with that look on her face that says, “This conversation resumes when you make it right.”

I can feel my mouth twitch. It wants to mutter, “Bitch.” But I don’t let it. I’m not thirteen years old anymore.

I take a big breath and look at the furry face of my conscience embodied. She doesn’t look hurt, but my lashing out has pissed her off. She has no time for my self-sabotage bullshit.

Part of me wishes she would rise to the bait and we could have it out like a couple of furious drunks.

I want to purge all my pent-up anxiety with an apocalyptic throwdown. It would feel so good to scream, and then grab that holier-than-thou scavenger and let the violence blast out through my hands.

My blood aches for an emptying out: a grunting, heaving, exhausting grapple.

Even the stinging trails where the Critter’s claws would rake my face would feel like satisfaction. The disaster inside me could leak out there, through the wailing pain and trickle of blood.

Finally, I would savour an explosive release as I hurled the Critter’s weight into the wall. There would be a kick-drum thud. Finality. Utter fulfillment. Maybe even a dent in the plasterboard: gleeful, undeniable proof that I escaped the jaws impotence.

But as I said, Dark Little Critter is too smart for that. And although the monster in me is roaring to bathe in our blood, I am glad that my imaginary friend steps coolly around my trap.

I don’t really want to hurt her. She’s not the one who’s done me wrong. It’s me. Just me.

I want to be done now.

“Critter,” I rasp, “I’m sorry.”

She looks at me and exhales.

“I know,” she says.

I stare at the table. The filthy, ancient fridge behind me hums obnoxiously.

“Are you going to say what you need to say?” Critter finally asks.

I sigh.

“Okay. Here it is: I’m fucked, my friend. Totally fucked. I can’t make this writing business work. I tried. I’ve been balls-to-the-wall for six weeks. I spent hours every day watching, reading, and listening to “take it to the next level!” courses, while I scrubbed floors and toilets, fed the kids, bathed the kids… and ignored the kids. I built a new website, networked, set goals and conferenced for accountability. I even got a couple of clients. I got so close to figuring it all out, and then I got sick. I had to put things off and reschedule, and suddenly, I hated it. All of it.

I don’t want to do it anymore. I dread every eyeball-throbbing early morning, and the nights of multitasking mania that don’t end until I should have been in bed an hour ago. I despise the useless productivity plans that get crushed by bullshit from the kids, or me, or just life. I can’t stand the suffocating pressure to keep pushing harder and harder until it works. I can’t do this anymore. I’m fucked. My family is fucked. I’m a useless human being.”

Critter listens with her black brow furrowed, but doesn’t interrupt. She pauses a beat before she responds.

“You need sex,” she says. “It always clears my head when the bullshit squeezes too hard.”

“Ha! Are you kidding?” I say. “I wish it was that simple! I can’t even wrap my head around the thought of it right now.” I rub the flesh between my unplucked eyebrows and more tears come.

Unwisely, I start to picture Critter in the throes of a sexual exorcism. What would that look like? Do raccoons make weird sex faces? Do they do it in different positions? And what do they use for toys – pinecones?

I must be making a weird face of my own; Critter laughs out loud.

Then, she pats my leg kindly and crawls up onto my lap like a warm lump of comfort. I stroke the tiny curve of her crown, and she rolls her neck to expose the space behind her ear. I take the hint and scratch the fuzzy valley.

“You may be a long way from carnal bliss, but you can’t deny it, that’s what you need,” she says with her eyes closed.

I think about this. She’s not wrong. Orgasm is pretty much the opposite of depression.

I think back to times when I have used sex as an escape from self-hate. Sometimes, it was a huge let-down that just made the cycle worse. But other times, it was… a great release. The best times were with a partner who let his inhibitions go, and who I trusted to respect my boundaries while I let go, too.

Wild, but safe. Honest, open, and naked with someone who joins me at my level. Putting all the shoulds on mute, and turning rapt attention to our feral appetites.

“Holy shit,” I blurt. “BDSM is fucking therapy!”

“Hehehe. Fucking therapy,” Critter says. “Sounds good.” We both ponder the thought for a moment.

“Do you actually mean BDSM, or are you just talking about regular sex?” Critter asks.

“Definitely not regular sex,” I answer. “The usual is just painfully… judgemental. It gets ruined by criticism – hating on your body, your partner’s body, your experience or lack thereof, the expectation that the act will begin in a certain way, last a certain duration, and look and sound just like the movies. That second-guessing shit is exactly what makes life such a steaming pile of… of….”

“Lunch?” Critter offers.

“Putrescence,” I say. “Loathing. Despair. Depression.”

Critter tilts her head and frowns.

“What makes you think that BDSM is different?” she asks.

I rub my hair and frown while I think about this. Where is this idea coming from?

I picture all the things that are crushing my brain right now – the spiralling money problems, the fights with the kids and the husband, and most of all, the constant, contemptuous whisper that huffs in my ear and slimes every conscious thought.

“You fail,” it says with decayed breath.

What is the opposite of that?

Suddenly, my hands spring up, finger to the sky like a field goal cheer.

“The orgy!” I shout.

Critter’s mouth flops open.

“You had an orgy? How do I not know about this?” she asks.

“Not mine, Butthead,” I say, rolling my eyes. “Someone else’s. I read an essay by a man who organized an orgy, because it was his girlfriend’s birthday wish.”

Critter looks disappointed.

“It was amazing. The piece was about this very experimental couple involved with the fetish scene. One year, the woman shared her fantasy of being the center of an orgy. She was very specific – she wanted to be lavished with attention and sex on her terms, and the men needed to be healthy and kind and share the couple’s sex-positive attitudes. She asked her boyfriend to find suitable candidates, book a venue, and serve as her bodyguard during the event. The man was intimidated, but on-board, and together, they worked out all the details and made it happen. And they were both so happy. It was the most heartwarming love story I’d ever heard.”

Critter’s robber-mask markings shift like raised eyebrows. She’s impressed.

I can feel my face brighten as I remember reading the story. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe there were such emotionally-secure relationships out there.

Wouldn’t that be the opposite of depression?

Ownership of your appetites. Open communication, acceptance of limits, and collaboration for mutual enjoyment.

No shame. No isolation. No punishment.

“Holy shit, Critter,” I say. “We might have just discovered the cure to depression.”

Critter smiles.

“It’s sex, isn’t it?” she says.

I laugh.

“That’s definitely part of it. But it’s more than sex. I think the answer is mindful, intentional pleasure and honest connection.”

I think about my life. My brain. My failures. My piece of shit kitchen table.

What if I could forget it all, and let the sweet synaptic honey of self-indulgence wash away my bitterness?

I might be a long way from planning an orgy, but I can start right now to make room for my inner animal. Who knows where that will lead.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that in spite of all my obligations to the house, the kids, and the gaping debt hole, I can hear the wet chambers of my heart slapping out a message: write a book.

I’m going do it – let myself slide beneath the bubbles of the most selfish use of my time and money I can think of.

I’ll make sure my husband is on-board and recruit a gang for support. We’ll see if we can set that fantasy free.

And I’m going to scrub this fucking table.

“So, you’re saying we need to find like-minded members for our orgy, and march proudly into the dens of ecstasy where we belong?” Critter asks.

“Pretty much.” I answer.

“I can get behind that philosophy,” she says, her eyes crinkling with a smile. “Though, I prefer to be the one got-behind.”

Critter hopes that you let your fantasies speak, too. May you actualize your version of the great birthday gangbang, and may it cure what ails your body and brain.

Writing Your Own Survival Guide

“Hey, Critter!” I say. “I’m so glad you’re here. I need to tell you…” But I can’t finish, because my imaginary raccoon raises a paw to stop me.

“It’s gonna have to wait,” she interrupts. “Something has come up.”

My words catch in my throat; it’s not like Critter to show up with an agenda. Our little chats are usually about whatever is frying on my sweaty little mind. That’s how I like it.

I feel annoyed. And confused. And then a little worried.

I frown at her a moment, my mouth pressed tight while I spin the wheel to see which reaction I will be going with. I’m ready to open with a windy “Oh-no-you-didn’t” tirade, but the pointer stops on worried.

“What’s going on?” I ask. Oh God, please don’t say you’re leaving. Don’t leave. Don’t leave!

Critter tilts her head at me.

“All of a sudden, you look constipated,” she says. Then, she sniffs three times. “But you smell fine.”

“Just tell me what’s happening,” I say. My forehead is getting prickly.

“We’ve got to get ready,” she finally says. “We need a plan.”

“What for?” I ask, my voice squeaking like a pubescent boy’s. I knew it, she’s leaving. My imaginary friend is leaving me. Jesus, that’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. Oh god…

“Winter.” she says, looking into my eyes as if that explains everything. “Winter is coming.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask, with an eyebrow raised hard in the universal expression of WTF. “This isn’t Game of Thrones.”

Critter rolls her eyes at me. Like I’m the one being an idiot.

Then, she narrows her eyes and sighs, like she’s trying hard to swallow-back some sarcasm.

“What does winter mean to you?” she asks.

My stomach drops. For me, winter means dread. The darkness and heaviness that plague me all year swell hideously when the weather shifts in the fall. Winter means I lose the sunshine, fresh air, and easy activity that sustain me. They are replaced by cold drafts blowing on my nervous sweat. Windsheild-scraping, parka-wearing and bundling up my thrashing-mad children. It makes me want to cry and go back to bed.

I have no idea why anyone ever decided to settle the northern parts of the world.

My body hates winter because shivering for seven months in a row sucks snowballs. My brain hates it because it feels like drowning and starving at the same time.

When I picture winter, I see the dirty grey sky looking all blurry because I am peering up from underneath the ice.

It makes me shudder.

“I’ve been trying so hard not to think about it,” I say quietly. “I don’t understand why you brought that up.”

Critter’s face softens.

“I know,” she says. “You didn’t want to ruin the summer with anxiety about fall. But we’ve got a problem. Fall’s here. Winter is coming. And we don’t have a plan.”

Suddenly, I understand. I run my hand through my hair.

“You’re right,” I sigh. “I need a plan. Crap – I can’t believe I haven’t started preparing.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Critter soothes. “Let’s start now.”

Those three words have saved my life repeatedly: Let’s Start Now.

So here goes.

Disclaimer: This list contains affiliate links, which means I learned how to play around on Amazon and create buttons for some of the stuff I wrote about. If you make a purchase through these links, Amazon will send a small fee to the Critter and I. My furry friend has asked that I spend it all on cat food. The wet kind. Although that’s probably not going to happen (sorry, Critter, that stuff stinks), we are grateful for your support! Also, full disclosure: making these links was really fun.

My Winter Depression Survival Plan

Motivation:

When I don’t commit to a plan, my lows get out of control; I sabotage myself and act like a dick to the people I care about.

No more burning bridges and sinking deeper into the cycle of messing up, hating myself, and throwing good things away. I can’t wait until spring to feel human again.

Rationale:

Making a plan helps. It makes it easier to get moving and do the work I need to do. I feel more confident knowing I won’t have to try to come up with solutions after I’ve slipped into dysfunction. It will be easier to get up and try.

Having a plan also helps me win the argument against the voices in my head. They tell me to stop acting, because I don’t really have a problem, and nothing can help me, anyway. I know that stuff is garbage, but it gets to me. My best chance to beat it is to get a head start.

Plan:

  1. Reach Out
  2. Take Care Physically
  3. Seek Pleasure
  4. Find True North

Details:

  1. Reaching Out

Struggle Buddies

At least once a week:

  • Call, message, or arrange a visit with someone who can handle me, and talk about my struggles
  • Let them empathize, relate, and share their strategies
  • Take their caring and encouragement in
  • Reciprocate
  • Thank them and appreciate our connection

Community

At least once a week:

  • Reach out within a Facebook group where people share some of my same challenges
  • Share something that is giving me heartburn
  • Encourage at least one other person
  • Share stuff that helps
  • Celebrate each other’s wins.

Therapy

At least once a month:

  • Check in with my counsellor
  • Ask for help with the biggest thing that is weighing me down
  • Commit to feeling what is there and saying what I need to say
  • Open up to one new task that helps me handle my fear, despair, and exhaustion in a new way

2. Taking Physical Care

Serotonin:

  • Every morning, use the UV light for Seasonal Depression
  • Every day, take brain-support supplements (fish oil, Rhodiola, and 5HTP)
  • Every two months, check in with the naturopath to monitor and adjust dosages
  • If this stops helping (or if side effects get out of control) talk to my doctor about going back on antidepressants.

Sleep:

  • Set an alarm to chide me when it’s time to turn off the computer, TV, and phone.
  • Turn my stuff off at bedtime, even if I still have work to do.
  • Make sure I finish all my chores and prep for the morning before I flop into downtime
  • Bribe myself as extensively as necessary to finish those chores
  • Build a Netflix-watching nest out of snacks and blankets
  • Have one good book beside the bed to entice me away from the TV What I’m currently reading
  • Do yoga and progressive muscle relaxation, and listen to guided meditations when I’m too wound up to sleep
  • Get serious about weaning the baby

Exercise:

  • Schedule exercise around all the crap I have to do
  • Multitask as much as possible (take the jogging stroller on errands or to the park; ride bike to Starbucks for writing mornings, workout at the playground while the kids play, make an obstacle course for all of us in the living room, etc.)
  • Go to at least one interesting fitness class per week all by myself
  • Buy groupons for classes I can’t normally afford
  • Let my embarassment about being out of shape motivate me to work on my weak spots between classes
  • Let my sense of impending burnout motivate me to get to drag myself to class

3. Seeking Pleasure

Feel Better Music:

Food

No more than once a week, indulge completely in something that I usually have to avoid: chocolate, cheese, or anything with ICING

Stories

Lose myself in stories that make me feel like the world is twisted and beautiful enough to fight for:

  • The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and Talking Dead
  • Game of Thrones and Song of Ice and Fire
  • Anything by Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, Yann Martel, Alice Hoffmann, or Lawrence Hill
  • Re-reading the Harry Potter series

Pampering

  • Massage – as often as our health plan will allow
  • Painting my nails
  • Getting the wherewolf waxed off my face

Escape

  • Date night
  • Girlfriend visits
  • Starbucks writing sessions, runs and bike rides all by myself

4. Finding True North

As needed, I will bring out writing, film, and webcasts by people who help me find my bearings:

  • Deepak Chopra
  • Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Ekhart Tolle
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Patton Oswalt
  • Daniel Tosh
  • Amy Schumer
  • Kristen Bell

So that’s me; now what about you?

Whatever it is that triggers you, Dark Little Critter wants you to face your villain standing up.

Make YOUR survival plan. Do what works for you. And yes; blasting the Stones while you squeeze fudge sauce onto a bowl of peanut butter and bacon bits IS therapy, if that’s what lifts you out of the gutter.

Think about what gets you out of bed, and write it down. All of it. Make it happen as you schedule each day, week, month, and year.

Turn back to it when the manure hits the propeller. Adjust when it’s not working.

And always remember, you are the author of this Choose Your Own Adventure. You are the only one who can rub the genie’s lamp (or any other part of him) and arrange for the day to be saved.

Depression, Anxiety, Rage and Raccoons

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